I moved without thinking. My knee came up in a swift arc, aimed directly for Akumi’s stomach. She easily backstepped my clumsy attempt at self defense, dodged to one side, and then came at me again with the halved broom handle raised to strike. I lifted my own hand – not to block, or to counterattack, but to make sure that my face wouldn’t receive the full brunt of her attack – and shrunk away from her.
“Answer me!” Akumi snapped.
“I don’t know!” I managed to say. “I don’t know what you’re even talking about!”
I expected her to hit me with her improvised weapon. With the door to the bathroom inoperable, she could probably have done a lot of damage to me before anyone could rescue me. Torture wouldn’t actually help her, since I legitimately had no idea where her brother was or even why she thought I might have that information, but that wouldn’t necessarily stop her from torture anyway. At least she could only use blunt objects. I didn’t have to worry about her getting creative with knives or flames or anything like that.
She didn’t bring the broom handle down on my fingers, though. Akumi breathed heavily, though she couldn’t possibly be winded, and glared down at me with furious eyes like some kind of vengeful god.
“You were there,” she said finally. “You and Mila, at the dock. Why should I believe you?”
If she’d seen us at the dock, that meant she’d been there as well. My group hadn’t stayed at the site of the massacre for very long. The only way Akumi could know that we’d been at the scene of that particular crime was through firsthand knowledge. I filed that information away for later use. Assuming, of course, that I was in any shape to use it later at all.
It also meant that, at some point, Kira had been at the docks, too. That seemed more relevant to my current predicament.
“Whatever went down at the docks,” I said, “we got there after it was already over. If you saw anything, then you know that the timelines don’t match up.”
“Unless you sent someone else ahead of you,” Akumi countered. “So that you could confuse the issue and give yourselves an alibi.”
“Why would we take down your brother, knowing full well that you’d be coming after him, when it would have been easier to wait and take both of you?”
I was pretty sure that it would not, in fact, be easier to deal with both Sato twins, but I didn’t need to say that.
Akumi continued to glare at me, but she made no move to attack. Cautiously, I stood fully up and put some space between the two of us. She effectively blocked the door, negating any chance of escape.
“What reason do you think we’d have to take your brother?” I asked.
“I don’t know who you are,” Akumi said. “But, when things go wrong, you are always there. In London. Now, in Dallas.”
“You were also in London,” I pointed out. “That doesn’t mean you had anything to do with what went down there.”
Akumi tightened her grip on the broken length of wood in her left hand. “I had a reason to be there, Sarah Ford. What reason did you have?”
“Business,” I said. Not technically a lie, even if it didn’t begin to describe my true reasons for being in London. “I had business to deal with, that’s all.”
“You have nothing to do with your family’s affairs,” Akumi pressed. “That is a lie. You would not need someone like Mila for that. You would not have earned an invite to the party.”
By ‘party,’ I assumed she was referring to the Green Light Gala.
I weighed my options and gave her a little bit more. “I’m not squeaky clean,” I said. “I know more about that…lifestyle than I want anyone else to realize.”
Akumi shook her head and took a step forward, cutting the space between us in half. “Another lie. You are a bad liar, Sarah Ford. You were surprised at the party, but not uncomfortable. And the other night, it was the same thing.” She narrowed her eyes. “This is a dangerous world, but I think you already know that.”
Her stance changed subtly and I caught the electric tingle of impending violence. I held out both of my hands in a warding gesture and decided to tell her the truth. Not the whole truth, but as much as I could conceivably give away without putting anyone else in danger.
“I’m a thief!” I said quickly, before she could take another step and start swinging. “I’m a thief! That’s why I was in London, that’s why I’m here. But I am not a killer or a kidnapper!”
“Mila would do it,” Akumi said, “if you told her to.”
“Mila doesn’t do anything she doesn’t want to do and you know it,” I countered. “And she respects both of you, even if she doesn’t necessarily like you. Is this the way you really think she’d go about this, even if she took it upon herself to go after you?”
That argument made some headway. Akumi stepped back again, widening the distance and the amount of time I’d have to scramble away from any sudden attack, and pursed her lips.
“Then why? What did you want from the dock?”
“Probably the same thing you wanted,” I said. “Information. That’s why you took the Texan hostage, isn’t it?”
“The Texan? Hostage?”
“Benjamin,” I corrected. “Your…date?”
Akumi blinked. “I did not take him hostage,” she said stiffly. “He hired us.”
Oh. Oh. That…certainly changed things. Puzzle pieces began shifting in my mind, seeking new arrangements and solutions.
“My brother and I want answers,” Akumi continued. “About Goto, the Triads…everything. He wanted protection. The three of us all came to an agreement.”
“That’s why he’s with you right now,” I said. “Because you’re protecting him.”
I ran that through my mind and found that, while it cleaned up some loose ends, it unraveled others. It explained, for instance, why the Texan had been so cagey at the Speakeasy. We weren’t the only ones with enemies and someone must have painted a target on the Texan’s back. Meeting the Twins, newly unemployed and searching for a solution to their own problems, must have seemed like an act of pure serendipity. It wouldn’t have been difficult for him to arrange a meeting, discuss terms, and come to an agreement: their services in exchange for his help.
It hadn’t worked, though. Whoever was after the Texan had still found a way to strike at him. The bodies at the dock house were proof that Kira alone hadn’t been skilled enough to stop a concentrated rendition squad.
And, if the Texan was still charming my parents at the dinner table, that meant…
“That’s who they took from the dock,” I said out loud. “He was there, instead of with the Texan, which means he was…safeguarding the information? You were promised answers as soon as he made it out of town. One of you stayed with your newest client, just in case he went back on his deal, and the other went to the dock house to make sure that nothing happened to the goods.”
“We would have been finished by now,” Akumi said. It was as good as a direct confirmation. “Out of this city and with the knowledge we came here to find.”
What did that mean, in the big picture? It seemed that we’d all managed to acquire an enemy or two willing and able to exert deadly force to enact their will. My team was running from the Magi, in general; I, specifically, was racing the clock to unmask and somehow defeat the Mouse before the timer ran out on my only means of protection. Barrett’s ex-partner had gone so far as to put a price on his head. Akumi and Kira had fled Japan to avoid some similarly nebulous enemy.
There were too many vectors to consider, too many possible attack surfaces, for us to defend or evade every angle. It was easier to think of everything as coming from one source and adapt accordingly.
“Did you suggest this dinner, or did he?” I asked.
Akumi hesitated only briefly before responding. A part of me wanted to believe that she was opening up to me. The larger, more practical, sections of my mind remembered that Akumi would probably just kill me if she decided that was the most expedient route. With that mindset, there really wasn’t any reason to bother lying or equivocating.
“At first, he did,” Akumi said. “I did not protest, even after my brother went missing. I knew that you would be here and this was the easiest way to find you.”
The subtext was faint, but unmistakable: “This was the easiest way to find you, without Mila.” With a hint of: “And, if you did not come, I would know where your parents are.”
“Well, I don’t know anything,” I said. “Not about who took your brother or why. My work in town has nothing to do with that.”
Which, again, was absolutely true. Max wouldn’t work with us to take down the Mouse unless the Texan was safe. He was clearly still safe. Now, we could turn our combined forces to the task of locating the remaining members of the Community. We’d lost about a week since the timer started, but that left…well, not plenty of time, but hopefully enough that we could accomplish our goal.
“But you were trying to find out?” Akumi asked. “You thought that I had taken the Texan from the dock house. So, of course you would want to find him for your own reasons.”
“I’m not saying that you’re right, but I’m also not saying that you’re wrong.” I made my voice as soothing as possible, as if Akumi was a barely restrained tiger, waiting to pounce on the first thing that drew its attention. “No offense, but I’ve got a lot on my plate right now. You can get your new boss out of town, set him up somewhere safe, and come back to figure out who took Kira. They obviously wanted him alive, so they’re not likely to hurt him.”
“No!” Akumi said sharply. His voice cracked out like a whip. “He is still here and I will find him. One way or another.”
“You could still do that,” I pointed out, “after you made sure that…Benjamin wasn’t in the line of fire anymore, couldn’t you?”
“I do not know why they took him,” Akumi said. “And I do not know that taking my client out of Dallas isn’t the type of thing that would push them over the edge. Nothing changes and no one leaves until Kira is safe again.”
If the Texan didn’t or couldn’t leave, then Max wouldn’t. And he was still in danger, even if he’d managed to slip the noose on the dock house massacre. That put us in danger, as well, simply by remaining around her. The only way to break that stalemate would be to pit Mila against Akumi. I wasn’t sure who’d win that fight, but I was certain that whoever walked away wouldn’t be walking well when they went. I’d have to risk my only source of martial strength on a gamble that might not help us in the short term and would absolutely hurt us in the long run.
Besides, the Texan’s trove of information was still immeasurably valuable. If we found that, we’d likely find Akumi’s twin. If we found the twin, Akumi might feel gracious enough to lend us her services for the duration of our time in Dallas. Max would be more willing to help because, in the process of locating the kidnappers, we’d also be in a position to take the Texan’s enemies off the board.
And going along with things meant I didn’t have to disagree with Akumi. That was one hell of a selling point, considering that she was still holding her makeshift staff/spear.
“When you took the contract, did you notice anything different about his security routine? Anyone new, other than you?”
“How would I know that?” Akumi asked.
Fair point, but I couldn’t believe she’d noticed nothing. It was more likely that she’d clocked something without consciously realizing it. At her level, there were always minor details that only clarified into complete pictures with hindsight. We didn’t have the time to get into that now, though.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll try and help you. But you’re going to have to let me out of this bathroom and you’re going to have to be patient. If we rush this, odds are high that we’ll push Kira’s kidnappers into doing something that we’re all going to regret.”
Akumi looked unconvinced. Her lips tightened into a thin line and her eyes narrowed to thin slits.
I was capable of advising Akumi to wait, but I wasn’t very good at taking my own advice. A surge of impatience rose up in me. I stepped close enough to her that our noses nearly touched, ignoring the thunder of my heartbeat in my ears.
“Either you’re going to kill me now or not,” I said in a near whisper. “But if you do that, then you’re going to have to deal with Mila, the rest of my team, and you still won’t be any closer to finding your brother. Trust me or don’t, but make up your mind.”
Akumi didn’t respond for a few seconds. Those few seconds stretched into several and I began to doubt my own bravado. When I was just beginning to regret my words, she dipped her head a millimeter or two in acknowledgment. It wasn’t much, but I’d have to take it.
She removed the halved broom and tossed both it, and the length of wood in her hands, into a trash can at the far end of the bathroom. After a cursory examination of the room – just to make sure that we hadn’t left anything behind that might raise questions – the two of us exited and made our way back to the private room where Barrett, the Texan, and my parents were engaged in a discussion about politics. I noticed that Elizabeth’s first wine bottle had been severely diminished already.
I returned to my spot next to Barrett and sipped from my wine glass. “Apologies,” I said. “I didn’t expect that to take so long. Did I miss anything?”
The Texan ran his index finger around the rim of a bourbon glass. His eyes flickered up to Akumi, down to the glass, and then back up to meet my gaze.
“Not a problem,” he said. “If you don’t mind me asking, what kept you two ladies away so long?”
I found a fake smile, somewhere inside of me, and plastered it onto my face alongside the most innocuous expression I could possibly manage.
“Oh, you know,” I said. “Just girl stuff.”